In a surprise move that barely registered with the Washington, DC press corps, the Trump administration yesterday afternoon announced that it has imposed economic sanctions on various Venezuelan companies and persons, including Venezuela’s Vice President, Tareck Al Aissami.
Although Al Aissami was officially designated under the drug kingpin sanctions program, I think there is a lot more to this targeting list than just narcotics trafficking. Of course, we will never know for sure because the U.S., correctly, releases very little detail of the data used for targeting. However, Al Aissami maintains very close ties with terror group Hezbollah, state sponsor of terror Iran and, of course, leaders of Venezuela’s main ally in the region, Communist Cuba. This could have been a factor, and if not, it will be now. Targeted sanctions have a ripple effect.
This is the first time since possibly September 1989, and I’m still researching this nugget, that an elected official who may become president of foreign nation has been labeled a narcotics trafficker by the United States. In 1989, the United States imposed economic sanctions on Panamanian entities tied to General Manuel Noriega. A few months later, it was game over for Noriega and his cronies.
According to the press release issued by the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), in addition to Al Aissami and Samark Jose Lopez Bello, a close associate of Al Aissami, the U.S. also targeted properties and businesses that are part of an “international network spanning the British Virgin Islands, Panama, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Venezuela.”
Of all the countries listed in the release, the United Kingdom stands out because, among other things, London is the home of Cuba’s Havin Bank. Created in 1973, it is owned by the Central Bank of Cuba and is the only entity of its kind for the Communist island. Experts who I have consulted over the years have told me that many suspicious deals, including many with Venezuelan entities, have involved this entity at one point or another.
While a modest step, targeted sanctions are a bold move when compared to the Obama administration’s somewhat mixed policy messages on Venezuela as well as the Western Hemisphere. I think comprehensive sanctions should’ve been imposed on Venezuela a decade ago, in part, because of Venezuela’s Iranian connections. Venezuela is also a potential candidate for inclusion on the State Department’s state sponsor of terrorism list. I thought it would eventually happen when, in 2009, noted New York jurist Robert Morgenthau called attention to the Iran threat in the Americas and also mentioned Al Aissami in a speech at Brookings:
Mr. El Aissami, who at one time headed Onidex, the Venezuelan passport and naturalization agency inside the interior ministry, is suspected of having issued passports to members of Hamas and Hezbollah. There are also allegations that El Aissami and others affiliated with Hezbollah are in charge of recruiting young Venezuelan Arabs who are then trained in Hezbollah camps in Southern Lebanon. Onidex is now headed by a very close friend of El Aissami; the two attended the same university and the friend is also reported to have ties to Hezbollah.
The Obama administration, of course, did absolutely nothing to stem Iranian adventurism in the Americas. In some cases, I think a strong case can be made that Obama’s national security team made the Hemisphere less sage by engaging, coddling, and supporting agents of terrorism in Latin America. The Hugo Chavez embrace. The limp high-five with Cuban dictator Raul Castro. Hamming it up with Ecuador’s Correa, Nicaragua’s Ortega, and many other autocrats.
The Trump administration’s decision to take a tougher stance on Venezuela will provide a boost to opposition groups in Caracas; it is also very bad news for Venezuela’s puppet master, Cuba. Communist Cuba officials will no doubt express the perfunctory righteous indignation at the designation of Al Aissami as drug kingpin. However, how much political capital Cuban officials will expend on the matter? Cuban officials are reportedly very concerned about what the Trump administration may have in store for them in the days and weeks ahead.
Finally, how much will U.S. economic sanctions complicate Venezuela relations with allies such as Iran or, more importantly, Russia and China? Is the Venezuela oil sector next (it’s possible now, ten years ago not so much)? Stay tuned. A key component of President Trump’s national security strategy is dealing a lethal blow to sharia supremacism, or radical Islamic terror. With these sanctions, he took a small but decisive step in making it so in Latin America.